The Houses of Parliament today

The First Representative Parliament


On January 20th 1265 the first truly representative English Parliament met at Westminster Hall. This Parliament, led by the baron rebel, Simon de Montfort, was significant because it formed the basis of a more representative democracy; inspiring the House of Commons as we know it today.

Although England was officially under the rule of King Henry III in 1265, it was de Montfort who truly controlled England. After growing dissatisfaction with King Henry’s unwillingness to adhere to the terms of the Magna Carta, de Montfort and his baron supporters, at a parliament in Oxford in 1258, forced Henry to adhere to a radical programme of power-sharing between the nobles and the monarch. This system of reforms was known as the Provisions of Oxford and was the first time parliament became a set part of the country’s government. Unsurprisingly, King Henry III hated working under the constraints of the Provisions, and in 1261, after building support for his cause, he is quoted as saying, “I’d rather break clods behind the plough, than rule by the Provisions!”

The situation almost inevitably erupted into violence, in what became known as the Baron’s Rebellion. Frustrated by the king’s lack of compliance, in 1264, de Montfort captured both King Henry and his heir Prince Edward at the Battle of Lewes. Taking charge of England soon after his victory, on Thursday 14th December, de Montfort summoned a representative Parliament. This new look Parliament met at Westminster from January 20th until February 15th 1265, and ultimately contained 23 lay magnates, 120 bishops, two knights from each county and two citizens from each town, and four men from each of the Cinque Ports. In the first instance, this Parliament was summoned to discuss arrangements for Prince Edward’s release. Although there had been counsels and advisers supporting every monarch prior to 1265, this was the first time that a form of democratic representation was involved within the parliamentary process.

Speaking to the BBC about the 1265 Parliament, historian Professor David Carpenter explained, “The Great Charter (Magna Carta) laid down the first written constitution, but it was primarily a charter for the elite… It did not envisage anything resembling a House of Commons…. It is not until 1265 that the momentous step is taken to invite the commons to parliament.”
As with modern MP’s, those who attended the 1265 parliament even had their costs covered.

History often credits King Edward I with the formation of the modern parliamentary system. In 1295 his Model Parliament insisted on regular attendance by commoners during parliament. However, it was Simon de Montfort, during his brief period of power (which lasted only until he was killed during the second Baron’s Rebellion later in 1265), that innovated parliamentary representation. It was his rebellion that produced a landmark moment in England’s political evolution.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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